Sunday, 7 July 2013

Freedom of Speech - that doesn't mean what you think it means

After numerous recent brouhahas (there’s always numerous), the Freedom of Speech wars are raising their ugly heads again, and like a compulsive whack-a-mole player, I simply have to hammer them down, because it’s amazing how much the people who scream “freedom of speech” the loudest are the ones who seem to understand it the least.

Freedom of speech – the freedom to not have the government come along and censor you without good reason (yes, good reason – it has never been an unqualified right). Are the people “silencing” you the government by law? No? Jog on then, your right is not being violated.

Of course, some people have severely missed what the freedom of speech actually means – or, rather, they’re trying to stretch it into weird and not very wonderful shapes to cover their scabby arses which has left it rather deformed.

Firstly, no-one has to give you a platform from which to speak. You can say whatever you want – but I don’t have to repeat it. I don’t have to let your words appear in my spaces, I don’t have to let you use my blog to spread your words to my audience, an editor isn’t obliged to print your letters or your articles, a TV station isn’t required to point a camera at you and spread your crap far and wide.  You can speak – you can stand on the street corner and speak, you can open your own blog, publish your own newspaper, write your own book, whatever; but no-one has to do these things for you. We didn’t sign up to be your publicists; if we don’t want to allow your voice on our spaces then so be it

Secondly, no-one actually has to listen to you. It doesn’t matter how wise and erudite you think you are, it doesn’t matter if you think you have are the bestest expert ever, no-one is required to listen to you. No-one has to take time out to see what you have to say, no-one has to visit your blog, listen to your excuses, accept your apologies or believe a damn thing you say.

Thirdly, no-one is required to go down in flames with you. If you open your mouth and all kinds of bigoted foolishness comes out, no-one is required to stand by you or defend you. No-one has to speak up for you. And you’ll probably find a lot of people dropping you – including employers, and advertisers – especially anyone who has been using you as a “spokesperson”.  That’s their prerogative, they’re not silencing you when they flee the sinking ship you just scuppered.

Fourthly, no-one is required to support you. If you say something terrible that I disagree with, I can boycott you. I do not have to give you, your organisation, your employer, companies you represent, your church etc my money. I do not have to buy your product. I am not oppressing you or denying your freedom of speech by not opening my wallet

Lastly and most importantly Freedom of speech does not make you immune to criticism. You can open your mouth and say, awful, terrible things – and we can use OUR freedom of speech to tell you that you’re an awful, terrible person. We can make long speeches and write long essays saying exactly how wrong you are. We can tear apart your excuses, expose your apologies. We can say you’re a nasty person, a bigot, a monster, an arsehole. We can call on people to speak out against you, we can create petitions, we can organise boycotts, we can criticise your supporters for excusing your arseholery. We can draw attention to your words and expose them for all to see. We can criticise, boycott those who gave you a platform for your words and those that spread them.

This is OUR Freedom of speech. None of this is you being oppressed by us or your rights being violated by us. This is just you facing the real world rather than being the super-special snowflake you think you are.

All this is aside from the fact that Freedom of Speech is not an unqualified right – and nor should it be. Frankly, I find the lack of decent hate speech laws to be appalling; privileged people’s right to say vile, dehumanising things are placed as more important than marginalised people’s safety and wellbeing. And it’s pure, privileged delusion to think that hate speech is not linked to violence (but then, these are the same forces who can see a gay man beaten up by a group of straight people yelling “f@ggot” and still decide it’s not a hate crime).

Now if you want to talk “silencing” and how certain voices repeatedly heard and others are discounted and not listened to, how expertise -  and attentive listening - is granted to some groups while dismissal is usually heaped on others; now that’s a different kettle of fish entirely. Except, all these people wailing about their “freedom of speech” are inevitably from groups that have their speech privileged over and over again, while the people “oppressing them” are nearly always from groups that are usually and historically ignored or discounted. Funny how that works. Why, one could almost think that the cries of “Freedom of speech” may be the actual silencing…